Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the category “bicycle lifestyle”

Book Review: Holy Spokes

You don’t have to be religious to enjoy Laura Everett’s delightful book, Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels (Eerdmans, 2017), but it helps to be a cyclist.  This is a book about cycling, but it’s also about one’s physical and spiritual journey on the bike. Bicycling everyday for transportation, she reminds us, requires discipline and intentionality, mindfulness and awareness, a connectedness with the world around you and with your own body.

Everett, a minister in the United Church of Christ, cleverly uses the various parts of the bike (frame, saddle, handlebars, lights, etc.) as metaphors for the various spiritual elements of bicycling.  The frame represents the “rule of life,” the saddle “endurance,” the lights “visibility,” and so on. Throughout the book, she refers to the writings of “Brother Lawrence,” a 17th century monk, who sought communion with god in the mindfulness with which he approached the prosaic tasks of life. Lawrence “was convinced that mundane tasks done with intention bring us closer to the holy,” and Everett uses her daily bicycle commute as “a way to cultivate that same awareness in me.”

Author Laura Everett on her daily commute. (photo: AP News)

Everett shares a number of insights that regular cyclists will recognize.  She writes of the intentionality and discipline that cycling requires, and regards these as elements of a spiritual life as well.  She illuminates the way cycling forms a “habit of our daily life” that shrink our cities “into more manageable places.” I thought of this insight recently as I waved to the crossing guard I see on my ride to the train station and the groundskeeper I always say ‘hi’ to as I ride by the Episcopal church.  I don’t know their names, but they are familiar to me in a way that makes me feel more connected to my neighborhood. Locked inside metal boxes speeding along at 40mph, we are strangers. On the bike, on foot, or even on the bus, we become human to one another. The bike lifts the veil of alienation that surrounds so much of our modern life, helps us see the details of our surroundings and think through the big picture of our small but meaningful place in the world.  In this way, urban cycling is not about escape, like bikepacking for example, but rather is about openness to and engagement with the troubled yet beautiful urban world around us.

She struggles with her feelings of anger and frustration at drivers who yell at her or whose dangerous driving imperils her life (oh, sister, I share that struggle!). But she also revels in the simple and myriad joys of cycling–the sights, sounds, and connectedness to our surroundings when we’re on our bikes. The way the rhythm of our breathing and pedal strokes and the wind in our faces makes us happy and alive, helps us develop, in her words, “a deeper internal life and greater attentiveness.” One might even say riding a bike is one way to experience what some call grace.

If you’re a person who gets around by bike and thinks about the bigger questions of why we do it, Everett’s book will resonate with you and delight you with insights, as it did for me. There’s also an element of light-heartedness, as when she compares different categories of cyclists to various religious sensibilities. There are “velo-orthodox” (who only travel by bike), “velo-conservatives” (who make rare exceptions for the car), and “velo-liberal” (the least observant). As she explains, the “velo-religious” frame their lives around the bike:

How shall we get there? The rule is always “by bike.” [The velo-religious] make few exceptions for inclement weather; they just wear better rain gear or warmer mittens. The bicycle is their frame for all transit, and then all activity. These people keep kosher.  (p. 14)

Everett connects the way she journeys through life on two wheels to life’s spiritual journey.  I found her analogy resonant in a way I hadn’t expected. I’d never consciously thought of riding my bike as both a physical and a spiritual discipline before but having been made aware of it by Everett, it makes sense.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about sharing this journey with others. I find the journey by car hollow, soulless, even a bit depressing. The journey by bike is so much more fulfilling. The bicycle makes us stronger, freer, happier, and it can give us a deeper appreciation for all creation around us. The bike doesn’t pollute and denigrate creation. It doesn’t let us ignore the human crises around us, either. We can’t just roll up our windows, turn up the radio, and ignore the homeless as we drive to church on Sunday. The bike helps us see and feel what it means to be alive, to be more fully human–and humane–in a troubled world.

This book is a wonderful gem, worth reading whatever your religious persuasion (or lack thereof).  If there’s a church of two-wheels and the Rev. Everett is preaching, count me in.

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Good Rides

Last week was a week of good rides.

My regular commute now takes me to the Metro Gold Line station that is a 15-minute ride from my house (20 minutes on the uphill return trip).  About halfway through my morning ride early last week, I noticed how smooth the ride was going.  The reason?  Spring break at two nearby schools. Streets normally choked with cars during the morning drop-off time were blissfully—almost eerily—empty of cars.   The difference was huge.  Several intersections that are normally stressful because of traffic and impatient drivers were virtually stress free.  With no cars blocking my lane I was able to fly down to the train station in record time.  It made the entire week’s commute a breeze and stands as a reminder of just how much traffic danger (and pollution) is generated by parents driving their kids to school.  The added stress of these additional cars on the streets is, in turn, a deterrent to more kids walking and biking to school.  It’s a stark illustration of how the car culture itself is a self-fulfilling reinforcement of the dominance of the car, which in turn deters the number of people willing to walk and bike.

This morning’s ride to the farmer’s market was also a good ride.  Saturday morning traffic was pretty light and, in addition to waving to neighbors along my route, I fell into a nice conversation with another cyclist at a stoplight.  The ride home (almost all uphill) was invigorating in the cool morning air, and I returned home with fresh fruit and vegetables and a mood much improved from my morning grouchiness (caused by reading the day’s news).

It’s been a good week. Now, if we could just lighten the traffic every day.

Self-Driving Cars

Google-self-driving-cars

Often when I discuss my alternative transportation with people, I get a similar response: “what about self-driving cars?”  At one level, I know people are often just making conversation, but it strikes me as funny that the first thing they think of as an “answer” for problems caused by the automobile is simply substituting a different kind of automobile, as if that makes a difference.  Part of this is an overriding faith in technology to solve problems created by, well, technology.  Part, however, is an inability (or unwillingness) to think in terms beyond the status quo.

At a dinner a couple of years ago, one husband of a colleague of mine, an architect in a prominent L.A. firm, proceeded to instruct me how driverless cars would mean “you people” (meaning bicyclists) “won’t need bike lanes anymore.”  He predicted self-driving cars would be universal within five years and the safety of people on bikes and people on foot wouldn’t be threatened by dangerous or distracted drivers.  The techno-utopia was right around the corner.  Leaving aside for a moment the absurdity of the claim that fully autonomous vehicles will become universal any time in the near future (hybrids, which are a much smaller technological leap, have been widely available for over 15 years, but currently make up less than 5% market share in the U.S.), the subtext of his comment struck me as a way of saying that “you people” (bicyclists) should stop complaining about bike lanes, already.  You’re not going to need them and, besides, roads are made for cars.

More recently, a colleague who professes to be an environmentalist asked me what I thought of self-driving cars.  I told him about the possibilities as well as the drawbacks and when I gently suggested that he might occasionally consider taking transit, he balked.  “I don’t like transit,” he flatly told me.

Even some bicycling advocates have been bitten by the driverless car bug.  A recent exchange on Twitter is instructive:

My bike advocate friends need not worry that they’ll have to “push for self-driving cars.”  What historian Peter Norton calls Motordom (the complex of automobile interests), now combined with the tech industry, is already strongly pushing for it.  Bike advocacy organizations, already stretched thin, should not waste precious resources doing the work of the car companies for them.  Many of my fellow citizens are slavishly ready to follow the pied piper that will allow them to continue their car-dependent lifestyle.  Finally, the promised land where we can all sit in our individual metal boxes and text to our hearts’ content.  Lord knows, they don’t need a “push” from bike advocates.

Such comments, and they’re part of the media discourse on alternative transportation, too, are a dead giveaway that the design of cities around the automobile has made us not only geographically but psychologically dependent on them.  The mere thought of living without a car sends many people into a panic.  I’m reminded of the character in one of James Howard Kunstler’s post-apocalyptic, post-oil, post-car novels who is so despondent about not being able to drive that he sits in his car in the driveway every day and pretends to drive.  One day, unable to cope with the thought of life without his beloved car, he blows his brains out in the driver’s seat.  As a commentary on many Americans’ abject psychological dependence on the car culture, Kunstler is spot on.

Last weekend, transportation planner Gabe Klein spoke at UCLA and was later interviewed about self-driving cars by the L.A. Times.  Like many people, Klein thinks that self-driving cars are coming—maybe not in 5 years, but eventually.  However, unlike most people, Klein does not view them as a panacea for our transportation woes.  So while the Times headline writer breathlessly touted driverless vehicles as “the future of LA transportation,” Klein was far more circumspect in his interview.

When asked to assess LA’s transportation system, Klein first and foremost bemoaned the way we’ve replaced LA’s transit system with the car culture, calling it a “complete planning failure”:

Look at the original rail network in Los Angeles. It was robust. But during the past 70 years, there has been a complete disinvestment in public transit until recently. When automobiles came in, streetcars became less desirable. On the back end, we are paying the price today. There’s been a complete planning failure. Sprawl does not work. There is also induced demand. That means you can’t build your way out of traffic congestion. New highway lanes just fill up.

Asked if there was nothing we can do to “defeat this gridlock,” Klein responded that any future transportation system—including one that involved driverless cars—must invest in transit and reduce car usage:

The single-occupancy car is not good. Do we want to keep buying the cow, when what we really want is the milk? We need to develop a car-light lifestyle. Uber, Lyft, driverless vehicles, robo taxis are steps in that direction. Even Bill Ford Jr. will tell you that the single-occupancy car is not the future.

When asked what the role of driverless cars should be, Klein emphasized “widespread car-sharing” driverless car rentals, taxis, and such.  What he did not say is that everyone should own one and assume we’ll continue our same commuting habits.  “There could be a dystopian future,” he pointedly noted, “if we sell everyone an autonomous vehicle and not reduce the number of cars on the road.”

How to reduce the number of cars on the road?  “Increase the cost and inconvenience of owning and operating a car,” mainly by making drivers pay for all the externalized costs their cars create.  Instead make cities more compact, more walkable and bikeable.  Invest in “expanded transit systems and more compact development that brings homes, workplaces, shopping areas and recreational opportunities closer together.”

Here’s the key thing about self-driving cars: they must be seen as a bridge to a car light or car free life, not a continuation of business as usual.  Some of the most prominent advocates of driverless cars, such as Sebastian Thrun, one of the developers of the Google Car, has said that he envisions self-driving cars “doubling or tripling” the number of cars on the road, because, presumably, they’ll be able to drive closer to one another.  Others have envisioned a looming “congestion disaster,” as one might predict using driverless (and passenger less) cars to, say, run errands while their owners are at work.  How walkable or bikeable would such streets be?  How livable would such cities be? Where would we find space to park all of them?  Would they exacerbate the tendency of cities to sprawl outward, since owners would be free to spend their longer commute time reading, texting, or surfing the web?

The problems of cars involve a whole range of land use and space issues, not only what comes out of the tailpipe, or the danger they pose on the roads, or the enormous waste of resources they represent, it is that they are space hogs whose inevitable result is unsustainable sprawl and the evisceration of social life in the city.  Having everyone move about sitting inside his/her own climate-controlled metal box is a fundamentally antisocial means of mobility.  It’s one of the key reasons drivers become selfish, dangerous, and often rude “owners” of erstwhile public road space.  The whole discussion of driverless cars ignores the question of transportation equity.  That is to say, is mobility a right, or is it a privilege reserved for those who can pay for the private box in which to move about?

One cannot design streets and cities for cars and for people at the same time.  Prioritize one or the other and design accordingly.  Switching to self-driving cars will not resolve this fundamental conflict.  Indeed, it may exacerbate it.  The answer to sprawl and eviscerated cities is not driverless cars, it is transit and walkable, bikeable communities.  Unfortunately, for many, the message is slow to catch on.

New Bike Co-Op in El Monte

Ribbon cutting at the new bike co-op

Ribbon cutting at the new bike co-op

A new bike co-op opened its doors yesterday at the Seymour Family Center (formerly Mulhall elementary school) in El Monte.  Sponsored by BikeSGV, the local bike advocacy organization, the “Bike Education Center” (BEC) provides the members of the community a space (for a nominal fee) to work on their own bikes, learn bike repair, and even rent bikes.  There will also be regular bike safety classes taught by local LCIs (League Certified Instructors).  I’ve been calling for more bike co-ops for years, and it is especially gratifying to see this one finally come to fruition.  Aside from the CalTech Bike Lab (open only to students, faculty and staff at CalTech), it is only the second bike co-op in the San Gabriel Valley.  Bike co-ops can be great spaces not only for wrenching and education, but for bike community organizing, advocacy, and activism.

Wrenching at the new BEC

Wrenching at the new BEC

The BEC fills a very great need in El Monte, a working-class community that has a large proportion of people who depend on bikes for transportation.  Riding the bus or my bike in and around El Monte, I’m constantly struck by the fact that it really is “bike city USA” if you look at all of the people riding utilitarian bikes for transportation, carrying their groceries or work gear with them.  Many of these individuals are immigrants or people of color and their bikes are their means of transport.  Further, with El Monte’s main transit hub, the El Monte bus station, nearby, the bike/transit transportation connection is very strong in this city.  Sadly, El Monte has very few (read: almost none) streets with bike lanes.  As a result, you’ll see a lot of people sidewalk riding.  I sometimes do likewise for a stressful portion of my commute on Lower Azusa Ave. near the Rio Hondo bike path.

I hope the BEC becomes a place where this often “invisible” segment of the bicycling community can begin to make its voice heard in City Hall to demand better bike infrastructure in and around El Monte.   I think BikeSGV is doing a great job of outreach to youth and families in the area.  In addition, I expect to see some bike wrenching workshops and safety classes offered in Spanish, and I’d love to see them offered (and run) by women, too.  Perhaps BikeSGV can set up a monthly wrenching event run by its WoW (Women on Wheels) group.  Bike repair and maintenance in most bike shops is too male-dominated, but the bike itself  can be a tool of empowerment for women.  Making the BEC a place where women feel comfortable working on their own bikes can be a very liberating function.  With outreach efforts in these directions, the BEC could become a place of community engagement and empowerment.

There was fairly good media coverage of the BEC grand opening on the local ABC news and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.  And, while it may be petty to quibble about media coverage, I was disappointed that the editors at the Tribune filed Brian Day’s story under “Sports.”  This isn’t the first time Tribune editors have been tone deaf when it comes to transportational bicycling.  It’s ill-conceived “summer of cycling” series a couple of years ago seemed designed to highlight the editors’ assumptions that bikes weren’t a viable mode of transportation more than anything else.  Ironically, this very same weekend, the California Bicycle Coalition is holding its annual statewide bike summit, where the theme is “equity” in the bike movement.  The connection between bicycling and social and environmental justice are now coming to the forefront for many of us who advocate for bikes as transportation.

A question for Tribune editors: why wasn’t this categorized as local news or transportation?  Categorizing a story about a community bike co-op as a “sports” story reflects the middle-class bias of the paper’s editors and misses one of the main reasons for the bike co-op.  Look at the location of the event, in El Monte, less than a mile from the El Monte bus station, where the overwhelming majority of people on bikes on a daily basis are not lycra-clad racers.  There were a few folks in lycra at the grand opening, but overwhelmingly these were just regular folks who want to ride their bikes for a variety of reasons.  Categorizing the story as “sports” ignores the fact that speakers at the event referenced the need for more bike lanes in the area, and more riparian bike paths for, as Bike SGV’s Wes Reutimann put it, “getting around the San Gabriel Valley by bike.”  Indeed, one of the main sponsors of the BEC is Dahon Bikes, a company that specializes in folding bicycles, particularly useful in conjunction with transit (a point explicitly made by the Dahon representative at the event).  It ignores the fact that the vast majority of old bikes donated to the BEC are utilitarian bikes, not racing bikes.

I hate it when the media’s myopic view of cycling pushes us all into the “recreation/sports” stereotype.  The Tribune should know better.  Cities all over the SGV are gradually waking up to the importance of connecting people to the Gold Line by bike.  Pasadena itself will soon be getting new bike infrastructure as part of its updated MOBILITY plan (not, “sports” plan).

Yours truly with a trailer full of donated bike parts. As you can see, I'm all lycra'd out, riding purely for "sport."

Yours truly donating a trailer full of bike parts. As you can see, I’m all lycra’d out, riding purely for “sport.” (photo: W. Reutimann)

Wake up, Tribune.  The bicycle is much more than just a recreational toy.  Quit treating it like it’s no different than a surfboard or a pair of skis.  It is a means of transportation, one that, especially in conjunction with transit, can replace a lot of car trips, reduce congestion, air pollution, society’s carbon footprint, and make our cities more livable and people healthier.  It’s cheap, equitable, healthy, sustainable, liberating, and empowering.

That’s the real beauty of bikes—and of El Monte’s new Bike Education Center.

 

The Pope and Sustainable Transportation

Pope Francis gives his thumb up as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Pope Francis, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Pope Francis caught my attention a while back, when I saw reports that, as Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he got around town by bus instead of a limo, and encouraged young seminarians to get about town by bicycle.  Thus, I was very interested to read his Encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si.”  The Encyclical ties together a number of important issues related to climate change and its threat to human society and the earth, our “common home.”  I recommend reading it for yourself, but for those without the time to wade through its 180-odd pages, here’s a good synopsis.

Laudato Si shows a good grasp of the scientific consensus on climate change and the threat it poses to humanity, and makes the case that we (i.e., global society) must end our dependence on fossil fuels sooner rather than later.  It is a courageous document, addressed to the entire human family, that urges people to rethink the current throwaway culture that wastes natural resources, pollutes the air and water, and results in profound alienation from nature and from one another.  More than this, it also calls on those in the global north (i.e., U.S. and Europe) to reduce our overall consumption of resources and work for a more equitable distribution of wealth within our own societies and between rich and poor parts of the world.

In this sense, I found the Pope’s message consonant with Naomi Klein’s powerful book, This Changes Everything, in that it looks at the climate crisis as part of a larger interconnected crisis of unrestrained capitalism, runaway consumerism, and inequality.  I may take issue with the Pope’s stance on reproductive rights, but I think he appropriately focuses on the outsized per capita consumption pattern and carbon footprint of people in so-called “advanced” societies like the US.

Exhibit “A” is the idea that everyone should drive around in a 2,000-lb climate-controlled easy chair with a personal entertainment system and that we must sacrifice our cities and our open spaces to promote the continued widespread use of these machines regardless of the ecological, economic, and social damage they do.  The US has the highest per capita carbon footprint of any nation in the world, and the Encyclical points out that it is simply unsustainable to export this model of consumption to the rest of the world. The US EPA calculates that more than a quarter of our national carbon footprint comes from transportation, and this is magnified by the automobile-induced sprawl that exacerbates the problem of distance and dependence on the car.

As part of this larger argument, the Encyclical makes a powerful case for a shift in social consciousness about the way we live and includes specific references to transit and more livable (i.e., walkable and bikeable) cities.  In every world city where public transportation is prioritized, bicycles play a significant role in the sustainable transportation network that helps people get to their destinations.  The reasons for this shift are not only environmental, Francis argues, they are social, as the shift from the automobile/consumerist system enhances human relationships and fosters greater social equity in our communities.

In Ch. IV, Sec. III. of the Encyclical, he calls for “substantial” investment in public transit and critiques the automobile-based transportation model in terms that could have been said by any contemporary new urbanist planner:

  1. “The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation.”

header-bikesThe shift away from the single occupancy vehicle (SOV) mode of transportation he calls for in Ch. VI, Sec. II. is part of a broader change that prioritizes frugality over consumerist excess:

  1. “. . . . A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.”

The bicycle represents so many of the values Francis emphasizes in the Encyclical:  it is inexpensive to own and operate, making it accessible to all; it consumes relatively few resources to manufacture or use; its carbon footprint is a tiny fraction of the automobile; it’s utilitarian instead of luxurious; it promotes health, happiness, and well-being; and it connects us to our communities in ways that the automobile does not.  When combined with transit, it can reduce automobile use significantly.

The Encyclical speaks powerfully of the ethical dimension of our personal choices—the “little daily actions” we take.  When we ride a bike, take transit, or carpool, we act in such a way that directly affects the world around us.  During a recent forum on the Encyclical Brian Treanor, Professor of Environmental Ethics at LMU and bicycle commuter, noted that while one person bicycling isn’t going to end climate change, it is the larger ethic of the act that carries value, and when combined with efforts to organize for broader social change, makes a big difference.  When we become the change we wish to see, we send a powerful message of hope to all around us.

MetroGHG_graphic2

It is refreshing to see an influential global religious leader who understands the role alternative transportation choices play in reducing our carbon emissions and promoting community, equity, and health at the same time.  I hope other leaders, religious and secular, begin to send the same message.

CicLAvia Pasadena

CicLAviaPas1

It has been a while since I’ve attended CicLAvia, but with this one practically in my backyard, I could not resist.  It was the first ever CicLAvia outside the city limits of LA (and not the last) and the first one I attended with my whole family.  As we rode to the event, we encountered others headed to the event.  As we got closer, we saw more people, different ages and cycling abilities (i.e., not “cyclists”), and families with children who were headed to CicLAvia.  We waved, smiled, and exchanged pleasantries.  I always get excited as I see more and more people on different kinds of bikes headed to the open streets, like we are headed to a gathering of the tribes, distant kin on the same pilgrimage.  As always, it seemed everyone had a smile and the crowd represented a huge, diverse cross-section of Southern California.  As always, there were lots of families, lots of people of different ages, colors, backgrounds.

CicLAviaPas2

I loved observing my wife and kids experience the delights of car-free streets and the sense of community that pervades CicLAvia.  My 15-year-old daughter, who rides to school with me each Monday, was awed at the sight and feel of Colorado Blvd filled with cyclists.  “This is so cool,” she said as we cruised the Boulevard.  “I wish it was always like this!”  Uh-huh, I smiled.  My wife, something of a chatty Cathy, particularly seemed to relish the conviviality of the event, striking up conversations with what seemed like every other person on the route.  After lunch at a local restaurant, as we rode up Raymond Ave next to a young couple who were singing a Maroon 5 pop song, my wife spontaneously joined them singing the chorus (much to the embarrassment of my daughter).  I smiled at the serendipitous, joyful human connections people make when they are released from dependence on their rolling isolation chambers.  Just another CicLAvia moment.

CicLAviaPas3

This particular route was only 3.5 miles, the shortest CicLAvia to date, but since we rode there and back home, it didn’t seem too short to us.  There were local “feeder rides,” sponsored by a variety of groups, but I’d like to see a greater effort to get even more people to and from the event on their bikes, so that more of the surrounding streets become informally “CicLAvia-ized” on the day of the event.

I’m a huge fan of such Open Streets events not only because they’re wonderfully fun and allow everyone to connect with their community in ways they cannot in a car, but because they also enable people to experience the freedom of car-free streets.  When I asked my son what he liked best about CicLAvia, he told me it was the freedom of being able to ride around town “and not have to worry about cars.”

CicLAviaPas4

This experience, I believe, is potentially subversive of the domination of our public spaces by the automobile, and offers an immensely popular signal to political leaders that people hunger for car-free streets.  As the open streets movement expands and becomes a regular part of the Southern California landscape it may alter people’s perceptions of what streets can be and expand their understanding of mobility beyond the automobile.

On our ride home, when I asked my son what he thought, his one word answer: “Awesome-tacular.”

Yup.  ‘Nuff said.

CicLAviaPas5

CicLAvia and Bike Lanes

Much has been happening in the bike-sphere, but I’ve been buried under a hectic schedule at my university, and it is only a brief spring break that allows me to break my silence.  We’re still fighting bad ideas like Sen. Carol Liu’s ill-considered mandatory helmet law and the multi-billion-dollar 710 freeway tunnels, but there are some hopeful signs here and there.  Here in the San Gabriel Valley, the Gold Line extension is nearing completion, and there is potential for this light rail to be a game-changer for commuters in the foothills of the SGV, especially if local cities make an effort to connect bike lanes to the stations.

One of the other bright spots is the growing willingness of cities to consider protected bike lanes (sometimes called “cycle tracks”) that have some form of physical separation, such as planters, curbs, medians, bollards, or other decorative barriers between cars and bikes.  For decades, the traffic engineering profession in the US has resisted protected bike lanes, but they have been extremely popular where they’ve been installed, and now they are starting to appear in cities all over the United States.  Long Beach was the first Southern California city to install one, and Temple City recently installed another on Rosemead Blvd.  There is a proposal by LADOT for the first one in Los Angeles, and I hope that there will be at least one in Pasadena’s pending mobility plan.  Once these protected bike lanes begin to proliferate, I believe they will significantly change perception of cycling for transportation in US cities.

Another bright spot is the growth of the “Open Streets” movement throughout Southern California and the US.  LA’s own “CicLAvia” is a prime example of an open streets concept that has spread and gained popularity wherever it has been tried.  Last weekend, CicLAvia held an open streets festival in the San Fernando Valley, and it was extremely popular (a bad cold kept me from attending).  The Valley was in many ways the epicenter of Southern California’s traditional car culture, so the success of a car-free event in the Valley is an indication of how far we’ve moved from the stereotype of American Graffiti.  The Valley’s CicLAvia also featured a “pop-up cycle track” on Chandler Ave. that gave people a taste of what it feels like to ride in a protected bike lane.  These events are important insofar as they provide people with a vision of street space radically flipped from cars to people and bikes.  The popularity of these events underscores the reality that people are hungry for public space that is safe to walk and bicycle in.  And where there is popularity, politicians will follow, perhaps even changing their own perceptions.

People who participate in these events often realize they haven’t really seen their city until they’ve seen it on a bike.  Businesses realize there is money to be made from clientele on bikes.  Open streets events also introduce people to the idea that distance is not really as much a barrier to bicycling as people assume.  When you realize that (with car free space) you can easily bike from one end of LA to the other, or one end of the Valley to the other, it erodes the automobile imperative just a little bit more.  These events bring people of different backgrounds together in an atmosphere of healthy, active, fun.  Every time CicLAvia occurs, I hear someone say I wish it was like this every day.  Gliding down the street, free from the fear of cars, free from the noise and the pollution, people begin to imagine car-free space every day.

I’m excitedly awaiting the next iteration of CicLAvia, which will come to Pasadena at the end of May.  As it becomes regularized, expected, and anticipated, I think it will continue to grow in popularity and, with it, the subversive idea that streets are not just for cars.  To paraphrase Che, we need “one, two, many CicLAvias,” to overthrow the tyranny of the automobile.

Portlandia

Cyclists on Portland's waterfront parkway, until the 1970s, this space was occupied by a highway.

Cyclists on Portland’s waterfront parkway. Until the 1970s, this space was occupied by a highway.

Last week a professional conference brought me to Portland, OR.  It had been about five years since I’d been there, and I fondly remembered its great bike infrastructure and transit.  I wasn’t blogging back then, so this trip offered a belated opportunity to explore a little more of downtown Portland by bike and to document my thoughts about its bike and alternative transportation infrastructure.

What’s offered here is neither a comprehensive nor a systematic review.  I admit that my 3-day sojourn does not offer the same perspective as that of a day-to-day commuter.  Instead I approached it from the perspective of how Portland compares to Southern California in terms of getting around car-free.  I know that some in Portland’s bike advocacy community are frustrated with what they see as the lack of progress on new bike infrastructure, but Portland still ranks as one of the best bicycling cities in North America, though it is starting to get some competition.  And, compared to SoCal, well, let’s just say we have a long way to go to catch up.  Despite the recent slowdown in Portland’s bike improvements, the city’s most recent plan calls for a majority of Portlanders to get around by means other than the private automobile by 2030.

Portland's newest bridge bans cars, prioritizing transit, bicycling and walking.

Portland’s newest bridge, Tilikum Crossing, bans cars, prioritizing transit, bicycling and walking.

One example of Portland’s commitment to car-free living is its soon-to-be-opened “bridge of the people,” Tilikum Crossing.  This new bridge across the Willamette River, connecting SE and SW Portland, is designed for pedestrian, bicycle, and transit (streetcar and bus) traffic only.  No cars.  By contrast here in LA, bike advocates have been forced to fight tooth-and-nail for the simple addition of bike lanes on the new Hyperion Bridge.  In LA, it always feels like we’re stuck with an ideology of automobile prioritization in which bicyclists might be thrown a scrap of “leftover” roadway space if it can be shown not to inconvenience a single Prius driver.

 

Light rail and bike integration at PDX airport.

Light rail and bike integration at PDX airport.

From the moment I stepped off the airplane, I noticed bikes and transit are integrated.  There is a covered bike area right next to the Airport’s MAX light rail line.  All MAX trains have space for bikes, and all Tri-Met buses have bike racks (though the bus bike racks are limited to a capacity of 2 bikes–as in LA, an insufficient number).  It was an easy MAX or bus ride to Portland State University, where I rented a bike from PSU’s awesome Bike Hub, run by students.  I was able to reserve a Linus 3-Speed city bike online and I used it to get around town all 3 days I was there.  My rental bike came with fenders, rack, lights, lock, and helmet, all for a very reasonable price of $45 for the weekend.  Most hotels have bike racks where guests can lock up their bikes overnight, but I was able to keep mine in my hotel room which saved me the hassle of having to lock it up overnight.  My first-floor room location also allowed me to come and go with the bike as I pleased without having to go up or down crowded elevators with a bike.

Portland has added green paint to improve the visibility of bike routes on several of its streets.  Green bike boxes are also common at major intersections.

Portland has added green paint to improve the visibility of bike routes on several of its streets. Green bike boxes are also common at major intersections.

Here’s the big thing about Portland: the comfort and convenience of riding downtown is far superior to anywhere in Southern California, except maybe certain sections of Long Beach.  Southern California has made some limited progress toward wresting street space away from the ubiquitous death boxes that dominate its roads, but it has been timid, exceedingly slow, and sporadic.  Portland, by contrast, has designed its downtown streets as if it expects people to walk, bike, or use transit.  It’s seen as the norm.  As a result, everywhere I went I saw other people bicycling.  Most riders were wearing regular clothes and rode practical bikes with fenders, lights and racks for carrying things.  In short, bicycling has been normalized as a form of practical transportation because the street design encourages it.

Portlanders who bike will tell you there is still much to be done, and I hope they continue to make improvements, but from where I sat, it was like living in a different world. For one thing, there is a network of bike lanes, and just about everywhere you’ll find convenient places to lock up your bike.  I’m talking good bike racks, not signposts, railings, or crappy wheel-bender racks that you have to make do with, like I see so much of down here.  It may not seem like a big deal, but knowing you’ll be able to lock your frame to a good rack just about anywhere in town is a huge thing to encourage people to ride.  These bike racks are not only placed at regular intervals along sidewalks and in front of businesses, but there are numerous bike corrals around town.  The only time I had to lock my bike to a railing due to a lack of good bike racks was in the parking garage of the Downtown Hilton (I mean, really Hilton?).  Everywhere else, bike racks were plentiful.

Bike corrals and bike lanes are commonplace on Portland streets.

Bike corrals and bike lanes are commonplace on Portland streets.

The bike infrastructure downtown gives bicyclists in Portland a tolerable level of comfort, which induces more people to bike for transportation.  It also increases safety.  Last year, Portland recorded zero fatalities among bicyclists.  Zero, despite a roughly 6% mode share citywide.  Some of the bike routes are painted green, increasing visibility (In LA, the Spring Street green lane paint was removed by LADOT after complaints by Hollywood location scouts) and there are plans to extend the city’s Cycletrack on Broadway.  Meanwhile, here in LA, Councilmember Gil Cedillo recently vetoed bike lanes on North Figueroa based on the utterly spurious claim that they would make the road less safe.

Broadway's cycletrack uses parked cars as a physical barrier between bicyclists and traffic. The city has plans to extend it in 2015.

Broadway Ave. cycletrack uses parked cars as a physical barrier between bicyclists and traffic. The city plans to extend it in 2015.

The beautiful part of visiting a real bike-friendly city like Portland is the realization that American cities can be made much more livable, sustainable, healthy and safe with a good integrated transit and bicycle system and by de-emphasizing the car.  It felt easier to get around the city by bike and transit than by car.  That’s not a personal preference, that is the residue of design.  The hard part of my visit was coming back to the reality that my own city is still struggling to emerge from the dark ages.

LA, I can dream, can't I?

LA, I can dream, can’t I?

Just Keep Trying

Jim Shanman of Walk n' Rollers leads a bike safety lesson at Sierra Madre Middle School. At right, volunteer instructor Andrew Fung Yip of BikeSGV looks on.

Jim Shanman of Walk n’ Rollers leads a bike safety lesson at Sierra Madre Middle School. At right, volunteer instructor Andrew Fung Yip of BikeSGV looks on.

I haven’t posted on this blog for a while and it’s time to get back to it.  Partly, my absence has been to the usual things: work, family obligations, the busyness of life.  On the other hand, a couple of weeks ago I’d penned an angry rant about the average suburbanite’s laziness and unwillingness to get their fat asses out of their cars—even for their kids’ sake, but ultimately decided not to post it.  I wrote it at a low point, mostly as therapy.

My frustration stemmed from the low turnout at a bike festival I had put together to provide a free bike skills class at the local middle school.  After busting my tail to put this thing together, the turnout was anemic, and I couldn’t get any parents from the middle school to step up and help boost turnout.  A parent advisor for one of the student clubs who’d agreed to have some students paint a banner to publicize the event completely flaked out on me, and I wound up paying for flyers out of my own pocket.  Other parents to whom I’d appealed to bring their kids were no-shows.  I felt angry.

I’ve decided to look at the bright side, however.  The bike safety event at least provided an opportunity for a small number of students to learn safe bike skills and, while we had more instructors than students, it was still a fun event.  Jim Shanman of Walk n’ Rollers, a Culver City-based organization that puts on such events, and volunteers like Jackson, Nikki, Andrew, and Chris from Bike San Gabriel Valley, a local advocacy organization, put together a great program. The students who did participate really got a lot out of the experience, and I enjoyed watching them gain confidence handling their bikes, learning some basic maintenance and riding safely.  The compliments I got from the local Rotary Club that funded most of the event, the local PD, and  the school principal helped ease the frustration of dealing with apathetic parents.  And, at least there are a couple more kids in town who know how to ride safely and have more confidence doing so.  A follow up email from Jim Shanman lifted my spirits, too.  Really, if anybody wants to put together a youth-oriented bike event, contact Walk n’ Rollers.  They’re terrific.

The morning of the event, when I saw how few kids had brought their bikes to school, I swore I’d never do it again, but I’m at the point where I’m willing to consider trying again.  Maybe getting an earlier start with the local PTA and the student body leaders at the school.  Maybe I’ll take a different approach and make it a community event next year.  At any rate, I’ve decided I’m not going to give up.

It’s going to take a long time to break the stranglehold of the automobile on our suburban culture, but the change is necessary for so many reasons and youth are integral to changing the culture.  Next year, I’ll build on what I’ve learned and the event will be better.  It’s like learning to ride a bike.  If at first you don’t succeed ….

You can say I’m a dreamer

I ride a bike for transportation.  By choice.  I still own a car, but I wish I could get rid of it (and I may someday).  Generally, this has made me happier and healthier than when I drove everywhere.  This makes me something of a, well—a freak—in the eyes of many of my friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and many drivers “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes, contestants in a suicidal race,” who rush past me on the road.

But there’s nothing that will clarify your perception more than breaking the chains of automobile imprisonment.  What I mean is that I think the mental liberation I’ve gained by leaving the car at home is as important as the physical benefits and the benefits to the planet.  Ride your bike and you begin to realize that we’ve made a series of choices to construct a car system (what environmental historian Christopher Wells calls “car country”) and locked ourselves in, then many of us claim that there’s no viable alternative.  The only choice we assume we’ve left ourselves is what kind of car to drive.  Of course, there are plenty of people who for a variety of reasons (lack of money, lack of legal status, cognitive or physical limitations) are unable to buy into the only choice we’ve made available, but it is assumed that if you have the means, owning a car is as natural as breathing, despite the irony that cars have made it harder for us to breathe.

Then there are those like me who’ve made a conscious choice to opt out of the car system to whatever extent we can, living car-free or (in my case) car-light.  My own journey started riding my bike once a week, and gradually built up over time as I became more comfortable riding my bike and taking transit where I needed to go.  As I’ve done so, a kind of clarity about the limitations of our car-based transportation system has gradually dawned on me.

As I’ve left the car behind, I’ve begun to realize how interconnected are our problems of climate change, air pollution, sprawl, traffic congestion, stress, public health, and the erosion of local communities, to name just a few.  While the car is not the sole cause of these, it is the nexus.  In a venn diagram of these problems, the car would be at the intersection.  I’ve come to see that automobiles kill more Americans every year than just about anything else except firearms, and maim or seriously injure more than a quarter of a million a year in the US alone (worldwide, the figures are astronomically higher).  When people say bikes are dangerous, what they really mean is cars are dangerous, and especially so to anyone not wrapped in 2,000-lbs of steel, glass and plastic.  Lurking beneath the “bikes are dangerous” claim is an unexamined assumption that being virtually required to purchase an expensive 1-ton exoskeleton to get to work is a normative state of affairs instead of an incredible waste of resources and money.

The economic costs associated with this form of transportation are also staggering, when one factors in the cost of the infrastructure, the cost of motor vehicle management and traffic enforcement, the economic cost of injuries, obesity, cardio-pulmonary disease, stress-related diseases, not to mention the billions—nay, trillions—spent on securing steady supplies of petroleum and other raw materials to feed the insatiable demands of the machine.  Not to mention the multi-billion dollar marketing juggernaut that fills our minds with the message that the car = freedom, setting us up to spend an average of $6,000 – $9,000 a year just to keep the damn thing on the road.  The machine clearly owns us, not the other way around.  Freedom, my ass.

Most appalling is the way so much of our public and private space has been given over to this machine.  Over the decades, cars have gradually taken over road space from other users—people.  These expensive cocoons of privatized space have so come to dominate our public spaces that it is no longer safe for children to walk or bike to school or play in the street as we used to do when I was young.  The bulk of the space of any retail or commercial development, by law, is given over to the storage of our empty metal boxes.  And if you really want to have fun, just try suggesting to your city that space along the road be set aside for protected bike lanes rather than a traffic lane or parked cars and, as soon as they realize you’re serious, witness the mouth-foaming that results.  The solution to our traffic problem is always that more neighborhoods must be bulldozed to build/extend/widen more freeways/highways/parking lots.  This moloch, master of our universe, must be served.

It’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, this rabid defense of the automobile domination of our lives.  As the great historian E. P. Thompson understood, people’s consciousness is profoundly shaped by their lived experience.  The “windshield perspective” reinforces itself until it is internalized and naturalized.   When it is reinforced by a massively subsidized physical infrastructure and gigantic industries that propagandize it daily, it becomes essentialized.  It becomes what Vandana Shiva calls a “monoculture of the mind.”  People will defend it as if their very lives depended on it, when in fact our lives—and the future of the planet—depend on doing the opposite.

Despite the naysayers, change is slowly coming.  With each new bike lane, each new rider I see on the road, my spirit lifts.  Just maybe, I think, there’s hope for us yet.  So, you may say I’m a dreamer.  But, as John Lennon once sang, I’m not the only one.  I hope some day you’ll join us ….

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